South Korea Moon Jae-in's support hits record low amid prosecutor fight

The shift comes as Mr Moon's single, five-year terms ends in 2022 and conservatives are looking to take back the presidential Blue House. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in's support rate hit a record low as turmoil over the fate of the country's top prosecutor rocked his government, in a worrisome sign as he enters the latter stages of his administration.

Mr Moon's approval rating fell to 37.4 per cent, down from 43.8 per cent a week ago, a tracking survey from Realmeter released on Thursday (Dec 3) showed. The drop came as his government has tried to oust Mr Yoon Seok-youl from office after the chief prosecutor launched probes into suspected graft by members of Mr Moon's inner circle.

The poll also showed troubling signs for Mr Moon's progressive camp, which saw its support rate slip and be overtaken for the first time in about four months by the conservative faction. The shift comes as Mr Moon's single, five-year term ends in 2022 and conservatives are looking to take back the presidential Blue House.

Mr Yoon has drawn the ire of Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, who has accused the prosecutor general of thwarting the President's attempts at reform. Mr Yoon has launched a probe for suspected nepotism by Ms Choo, looking into whether she inappropriately helped her son extend his medical leave from military service - a charge Ms Choo denies.

The Realmeter poll showed a sharp drop in support among liberal and swing voters, which could make it difficult for members of Mr Moon's progressive camp to ride his coattails in a presidential race.

The public appears to be siding with Mr Yoon in the fight with the long-time prosecutor emerging in recent weeks as a top contender for the presidency.

The fight has come as Mr Moon faces criticism from many in the public for what they see as a failure to delivery on his pledges to cool a red-hot real estate market and decrease income inequality.

The authority of prosecutors has been a sore spot in South Korea for years and limiting prosecutors' investigative powers has been one of Mr Moon's key policy objectives since taking office in May 2017. Although the prosecutors pledge independence, they have faced criticism from the left and right for using prosecutorial powers for political purposes and protecting the privileged.

Mr Yoon is facing a disciplinary hearing on Friday, after winning an injunction from a Seoul court this week that blocked his suspension. Mr Yoon has requested that the hearing be delayed. After the committee's decision, Mr Moon will decide on disciplinary action.

Mr Yoon was handpicked by Mr Moon to be the country's top prosecutor in 2019, with a mandate to make good on the President's pledges to clean up government and go after the most powerful. But soon after taking office, Mr Yoon focused his attention on Mr Moon's pick at that time to lead the Justice Ministry - Mr Cho Kuk.

A close aide to Mr Moon, Mr Cho was indicted on a dozen charges, including bribery. Mr Cho, who was forced from office, has denied the charges. The scandal sent Mr Moon's support rate to its previous all-time low.

The graft investigations are only the latest in string of high-profile cases brought by Mr Yoon over the years, including probes of two former presidents, a chief justice and the heads of Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor.

After then-President Park Geun-hye, a conservative, demoted Mr Yoon, he joined the special prosecutor's team whose findings laid the groundwork for her impeachment and removal in 2017.

"I'm not loyal to anyone," he told lawmakers when asked about one such probe in 2013.

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